IBM makes quantum computing available in the cloud

The company's 5-qubit processor is accessible on any desktop or mobile device

IBM Research is making its quantum processor available to the public via IBM's cloud to any desktop or mobile device.

"This moment represents the birth of quantum cloud computing," Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, said in a statement today. "Quantum computers are very different from today's computers, not only in what they look like and are made of, but more importantly in what they can do. Quantum computing is becoming a reality and it will extend computation far beyond what is imaginable with today's computers.

The cloud-enabled quantum computing platform, dubbed the IBM Quantum Experience, is designed to let people use individual quantum bits, also known as qubits, to run algorithms and experiments on IBM's quantum processor.

Jay Gambetta, manager of Theory of Quantum Computing and Information at IBM, told Computerworld that the public use of Quantum Experience will be free.

"Since this is open to the public, there is no organization or business that will have priority," said Gambetta. "There are several opportunities for material and drug design, optimization, and other commercially important applications where quantum computing promises to offer significant value beyond what classical computers can offer."

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT, Inc., said IBM's 5-qubit processor should be powerful enough to handle a variety of research and other computations.

"I personally believe this is a very big deal," he added. "First and foremost, it should significantly broaden interest in and work around quantum computing. At this point, those efforts are mainly being performed by researchers associated with companies and labs able to afford highly experimental and highly expensive quantum technologies."

King also noted that providing public access should help validate work being done on quantum computing algorithms and applications, which previously could only be run in simulations.

"The project demonstrates that IBM's concepts around quantum processors work, can be reproduced and are stable enough to support cloud-based access and services," said King. "If the project succeeds and leads to a clearer understanding of quantum computing, as well as workable larger systems, it will definitely be remembered as a game changer."

Earl Joseph, an IDC analyst, noted that in addition to fully building a quantum computer, the big challenge is figuring out how to program it. IBM’s move to engage the public should help with that.

“This experiment provides the opportunity for a large group of people to start to learn how to program quantum computers, which will help to develop ways to use this new type of technology,” said Joseph. “Hopefully, it will help to motivate students to go into quantum computing programming as a field of research…. It’s a milestone in allowing a larger number of people around the world to get their hands on this.”

Richard Doherty, an analyst with The Envisioneering Group, called the IBM move a potential game changer.

“Quantum computers may be the most compelling, rich-data, cognitive engines for decades to come,” he said. “Our eagerness to solve business, and societal IT and calculation challenges seems limitless. Data farms and smart data demand quantum computing power. If you make it, they will come. IBM and the public get to establish this.”

Although D-Wave Systems Inc., a Canadian company, has said it's built a quantum computer and Google and NASA are testing their own quantum hardware, many in the computer industry and the world of physics say a full-scale quantum computer has not yet been created.

IBM isn't saying it's built a quantum computer. What it has are quantum processors, which are much smaller than a full-scale computer.

According to IBM, four to five qubits is the minimum number required to support quantum algorithms and simple applications. IBM's quantum processor contains five qubits.

The company noted that its scientists think in the next 10 years they'll have medium-sized quantum processors of 50 to 100 qubits, which they believe will be capable of tapping into quantum physics.

At 50 qubits, IBM contends that classic computers could not compete with it in terms of speed running complex calculations.

A quantum computer uses qubits, instead of the bits used in classic computers. A qubit has the possibility of being both a one and a zero. Using qubits, a quantum machine doesn't work in an orderly fashion and can calculate all possibilities at the same time.

That means quantum machines should be able to work on problems requiring complex and massive calculations much faster.

Scientists hope quantum computers will eventually be used to find distant habitable planets, create greater computer security and find a cure for cancer and heart disease.

IBM's current quantum processor is being housed at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in New York.

"By giving hands-on access to IBM's experimental quantum systems, the IBM Quantum Experience will make it easier for researchers and the scientific community to accelerate innovations in the quantum field, and help discover new applications for this technology," said Krishna.

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